I Tried It: Learning Guitar While Stuck at Home

One man’s homebound journey to acoustic greatness.

My story starts as all great Hero’s Journeys do, with a young man playing video games in his underwear. The day was June 19th and a little indie game called “The Last of Us Part II” had just been released on PlayStation 4, the sequel to one of the best games of all time, and I was very much excited to play it.

Within the first ten minutes one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, Joel Miller, sits down with his guitar and strums a few notes, prompted by my swiping at the controller, and then plays the song “Future Days” by Pearl Jam. I watched him sitting there in his jeans and flannel, strumming and singing the soulful tune, and then I caught my reflection in the black screen, sitting there slack-jawed, pale and haggard with the expression of a man whose greatest achievement in life was once almost meeting Johnny Depp.

I turned off the television. The game’s over 30 hours long, so I’d definitely have 29 and a half hours of totally non-traumatizing gameplay with Joel left to enjoy later. Right now, I had to answer a call, the Call to Adventure, and he doesn’t leave voicemail — I was going to learn how to play guitar.

The first step on my Journey would be finding myself a guitar. I perused the internet for the finest craftsmanship, an artisan design, a delicate and masterful instrument through which the muses would bless me with their heavenly melodies — and I landed on a $50 Martin Smith that only came in puke green and shipped from a warehouse in Dum-Merican Province in China, which I’m now thinking might be a made-up place.

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It got here in a week. I ripped it free from its box, took it out and strummed a random chord. Carl, the stray cat that lives behind my house, screeched and began clawing at its ears.

“I’m crossing the threshold,” I said. “Now I will be tested.”

“No one gets these references to the Hero’s Journey, Archer,” meowed Carl. “The whole point of story structure is that it’s a structure. Not something you bring up constantly during the story. Who do you think you are, Dan Harmon?

“I read Joseph Campbell, and I want people to know it,” I screamed. “Now scram, Carl.”

This guitar wasn’t my first foray into music. I already play the clarinet (calm down, ladies), so I thankfully went into my first attempt at guitar with a knowledge of rhythm, notes, etc. But still, it wasn’t particularly pretty.

I spent about 20 minutes trying to get the thing in tune, during which my mediocre picking sounded like some sort of madrigal dance Renaissance Faire torture session while I tried twisting the twisty things at the top of the long part of the thing, which I thought was how you tune it? At that point, I realized that I needed some help.

I turned on my laptop. A Slack notification:

“Archer, you promised you were going to copy edit the Wisconsinite feature two days ago, and I still haven’t heard back from you about the Special Advertising Sections you were supposed to write. You can’t keep going off on Hero’s Journeys and writing stupid, long columns about them — you have an actual job, and frankly, if you don’t take this more seriously…”

I closed out of that real quick and opened up YouTube. Then I searched: “guitar.”

That actually worked pretty well. I found a series of videos by this guy Marty Schwartz who wears a fedora and sits on a stool, and they were super helpful.

My first attempt at really playing ended quick, when my left wrist got horrifically sore and my fingertips ached with the surprisingly painful bite that comes from pressing down the strings. I had learned a chord: E minor. It didn’t sound good, but it was, by most available metrics, music.

Over the following weeks, Marty and I went through many chords, and I started to improve. My days were devoted to my relentless pursuit of excellence at Milwaukee Magazine

“Archer, seriously, we haven’t heard from you in weeks. We pay you money to do things here. You have responsibilities. I knew we shouldn’t have hired you. Everyone was saying, ‘He did a close-up magic show in the middle of the interview. How does that qualify him for the job?’ But we didn’t listen, and now here we are.”

…But once the day was over, I could give 20 minutes pre-dinner to a little guitar practice, and soon enough I had a song down: “About a Girl” by Nirvana.

Now, OK, I’ll admit, the opening of that song is pretty much just two chords and you just play them over and over, but hey, it’s still something.

Once I realized that I actually could play that song — one I had heard many, many times on Nirvana’s phenomenal MTV Unplugged album — I couldn’t stop playing it.

“Hey,” I said. “Look at me. I’m playing Kurt Cobain music.”

“Who are you talking to?” said Timmy Functional, my live-in massage therapist.

“Shut up, Timmy. This column’s not about you.”

I strummed away, muttering the lyrics over the repetitive chords.

Oh wow, I thought, rocking away on the tune. This is actually pretty good. I’m kind of amazing. Maybe I should take this show on the road, go professional. Soon enough I’ll be at Coachella.

An insane scream echoed from below, and I put down the guitar.

“ARCHER.”

I stood up and looked out the window to see my neighbor Gertrude, President of the St. Peter’s Parish Council and Secretary of the Women of a Certain Age Bridge and Bingo Bonanza Babes, standing out on her porch in her floral pajamas.

“Oh, uh, hey Gertrude,” I said, opening the window. “I was playing About a Girl by Nirvana.”

Her eyes were wide and red, and she hissed up at me. “It’s one in the morning.”

“Oh. Time flies when you’re engaged in the meaningful pursuit of self-improvement, I guess, huh?”

“Do you have to play that right now?”

“I think I’m getting better.”

“You’re not.”

“Ok, wow, kinda hurtful.”

“You’ve been playing every night for three weeks.”

“I’m, you know, trying to be cool like this guy I saw in a video game.”

“My husband died in a car crash and listening to you is still the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

“Jeez, Gertrude.”

“Please stop.”

“You know, you’re being kinda inconsiderate right now.”

She picked up a brick from her porch and reared back with terrifying athleticism.

“Ok, ok,” I said, raising my hands. “Sorry. I’ll lay off. Say hi to the Bingo Bonanza Babes for me.”

I returned to my desk and looked down at my guitar. All right, so maybe I wasn’t a genius prodigy guitar player. Maybe my playing was literally torturing old ladies. Maybe I shouldn’t have even bought this thing. I could have used the money to buy something useful, like my medication, but no, I thought I had to have this stupid guitar.

In sudden despair I picked up the guitar and tossed it across the room, where it crashed against the wall with an atonal racket.

I returned to what I was meant to do, step one of the Hero’s Journey, before the stupid Call to Adventure — I turned on my PlayStation.

Back to the “Last of Us Part II.” I sank into my chairs deep hard-fought butt-indent and got to playing. Because I had quit so abruptly the first time, I had to start over, and soon enough there I was at that scene again — Joel riding across a field with his guitar over his back, arriving home and playing “Future Days.”

“If I ever were to lose you,” he sang. “I’d surely lose myself. Everything I have found here, I’ve not found by myself.”

I turned off the PlayStation and picked up my guitar again.

It was horrendously out of tune — probably because I’d thrown it against a wall — but once I had it back where it should be, I pressed my aching fingertips against the strings for a G Major chord, sat back and quietly strummed.

More time passed, days of quick, stolen practice kept at a reasonable volume, and as the chords progressed, I started to become slightly more adept at picking individual strings and pulling together notes into awkward slow melodies.

And soon after that, I found myself looking up the tabs for “Future Days.”

One evening, I was sitting on my back stoop chewing on a block of cheese and staring at the moon, as I often do, and I brought out my guitar and started silently practicing the chords to the song, too embarrassed to actually strum, my fingertips callused and numb on the strings now.

Carl came slinking out from behind the garage and stared at me with those terrifying dead feline eyes, watching my silent struggle to land each chord. I stopped and stared him down, but he didn’t even blink. I sighed and then took my pick from my pocket.

“All right, Carl,” I said. “Let’s try this.”

I pressed my fingers to the strings, felt the opening chord and strummed once. The chord came out correct and mostly in tune — an immense relief. I awkwardly fumbled for the next chord. And then the next.

“If I ever were to lose you,” I mumbled. “I’d surely lose myself. Everything I have found here, I’ve not found by myself.”

I hit an absolute dud of a note, an out-of-tune buzzsaw in the middle of the verse, but I kept going. A few shaky transitions, muffled chords, and slurred lyrics later, I was through.

I set the guitar down at my side and looked over at Carl, who was rubbing his face against a garbage can and not really paying attention.

“Well,” I said. “That’s the song.”

Someone clapped. Carl’s paws couldn’t do that, so I looked up in confusion and saw the couple who lives across from me peering over the fence, smiling and clapping. One of them whooped. My face turned red and I felt the urge to hide behind a tree, but then I nodded back and waved.

“Thanks,” I said, with a sudden strange satisfaction, a feeling that only comes when the Hero begins to reach the end of the Journey.

I stood up, smiled at my neighbors, and slung my guitar over my back as the sun set behind me, ready to practice another day.

I turned and Gertrude pegged me in the nose with a brick.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.